Tonie Campbell: Love at First Flight

By Steve McGill
Updated: December 8, 2005

“The first thing a hurdler learns is how to fall.” Tonie Campbell

Campbell (left) captures the bronze in the '88 Olympics. Roger Kingdom, on the right, earns the gold.

Campbell (left) captures the bronze in the ’88 Olympics. Roger Kingdom, on the right, earns the gold.

Except for the immortal Willie Davenport, no American high hurdler has qualified for more Olympic Games than California native Tonie Campbell, who made the U.S. team in 1980, 1984, and 1988, with his best result being a bronze medal at the ’88 Games in Seoul, Korea, finishing behind fellow countryman Roger Kingdom and Britain’s Colin Jackson. The multi-talented Campbell, who has written screenplays, children’s books, dabbled in acting, and currently coaches at the junior college level and the elite level, was recently kind enough to give me more than an hour of his time to chat about his hurdling career and his insights regarding the sport of Track & Field. Throughout a career that spanned thirteen years (1980-1992), Campbell regularly competed against the likes of Kingdom, Jackson, Renaldo Nehemiah, Greg Foster, and many other of the world’s best. Though not as highly regarded as his aforementioned rivals, there can be no doubt that Campbell has carved a name for himself among the hurdling elite that those knowledgeable about the event will surely recognize and celebrate.

The three-time Olympian, who graduated from Banning High School in Southern California in 1978, did not begin running track until his tenth-grade year. “Running track was a fluke for me,’ Campbell said. “I had always played baseball and football before then; I had a cousin who played professional baseball, and I had planned on following in his footsteps. So, when I got to high school, all the guys I grew up with said you play football in the fall, then you run track in the spring, because the girls come to the track meets. I was like, okay, because, you know, I didn’t want to be seen as geeky. At Banning, most of the Latinos and Caucasians played baseball; blacks ran track. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started. I didn’t know what the events were, how long a track meet was supposed to last. On the first day of practice, the coaches ask you what your event is. When you tell ‘em, they send you in this direction or that direction, depending on what your event is. Well, I didn’t know what my event was, so I just stood there. Then one of the coaches mentioned long jump, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try long jump.’ But then they realized they needed some hurdlers. One of them said, ‘What about that kid?’, pointing at me. I saw the low hurdles out there, so I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ Then they said, ‘You have to do both,’ the lows and the highs. I said ‘No, no, I’m not doin’ both.’ That’s when our captain, Curtis Perry, a senior, a real big kid, says to me, ‘You’re gonna do the hurdles, and you’re gonna do both.’ And then he pushed me. He pushed me in the chest. I was falling backwards, caught my balance, turned around and kept jogging. The high hurdle was there, and I jumped over it. It was love at first flight.’ Indeed it was. Campbell ended up finishing his high school career with personal bests of 13.81 in the 110 meter high hurdles, and 36.7 in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles. “I didn’t run anything else,’ he said, laughing. The 13.81 was good for third place in the California State Championship meet, behind Milan Stewart and Philip Johnson, and the 36.7 was good for fourth. He also finished first in the 110′s in the prestigious Arcadia Invitational as a senior.

Coming out of Banning, Campbell was hoping to matriculate at UCLA as his next stop, where he had visions of running side-by-side with his hero Greg Foster, who, prior to Nehemiah’s freshman year at the University of Maryland, was in the process of single-handedly revolutionizing the event. However, things didn’t work out as Campbell had planned. He ended up attending the University of Southern California, where he became a chief rival of Foster’s in the UCLA vs. USC wars. Campbell described the events that led to this situation: “At the end of my junior year, Philip Johnson (who, along with Stewart, ended up joining Campbell at USC) and I were hanging out one day at UCLA because the coaches up there were recruiting him. While we were there, I saw Greg Foster working out. He was like this 6’4′ amazing strong guy. I said to myself, ‘I wanna run with this guy, I wanna train with him.’ So I asked the coaches, ‘How do I get a scholarship?’ Coach [Jim] Bush said, ‘Run 13.9, and we’ll call you.’ My first race my senior year, I ran 13.9, but I’m still waiting for that phone call. Then USC comes calling, so it was a natural fit. Unfortunately, though, instead of being my teammate, Greg became my adversary, and it was really tough for me, because he was the greatest hurdler in the world at the time.’ At the Mt. Sac Relays in April of 1981, Campbell ran the anchor leg of the shuttle hurdle team that set the new collegiate record time of 55.25. His teammates on that squad were Jim Tatham as first leg, Johnson as second leg, and Stewart as third leg. Unfortunately, the record was broken less than a month later by a University of Tennessee team led by Reggie Towns and Willie Gault. The following year, according to Campbell, Tatham was replaced by Sam Turner, “and we destroyed the world record, but Sam wasn’t a USC athlete, so the record has never been ratified because we weren’t an official team.’ Prior to those shuttle hurdle records, and prior even to making the 1980 Olympic team, Campbell struggled in his freshman year at USC. Only occasionally did he even get to compete in the high hurdles. “They tried to make me an intermediate hurdler,’ he said. “I was tall, and everyone said I looked like Edwin [Moses]. My coach was not pleased with my athletic performance or my academic performance. I had all passing grades, but he took my scholarship from me, said that if I was willing to train through the summer, and make amends with my parents ‘ I wasn’t getting along with them very well either ‘ he’d renew my scholarship on a semester-by-semester basis. That summer I put on fifteen pounds of muscle, I grew a couple inches, I did long runs in the morning, weight training, stairs, and the next thing I knew I made the Olympic team the next year. My fastest as a freshman was 14.3; I ran 13.9 in my first race as a sophomore. The coaches were kicking my butt that year, but I don’t regret any of it now.’ As is commonly well-known by now, Campbell’s first Olympic experience was not an Olympic experience at all, as the United States led a boycott of the Moscow games in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. While Campbell and many others have been vocal in the past about their feelings that the boycott harmed America’s Olympians more than it harmed the Russian government, he says that his feelings were a bit nebulous at the time. “I have a unique perspective of that,’ he explained. “I didn’t expect to make the team. When I qualified [for the Olympic Trials], I didn’t even know there was such a thing. When I got something in the mail for free room and board to participate in the trials, my family laughed, and I laughed right along with ‘em. I had just come back from my first NCAA’s. So, at the trials, each round, I did the same thing I had done at the NCAA’s. I knew I had to be in the top four to make the semi-finals, so I made sure I made the top four. I made it all the way to the finals that way. By some stroke of luck, Foster went out [with tonsillitis after the first round]. I drew a good lane, right between Renaldo and Dedy Cooper, so things worked out in my favor. They take the top three to the Games, so I told myself to just latch onto Renaldo and let him pull me in. I was a master at latching onto another hurdler’s rhythm and technique. He pulled me through to a new personal best [of 13.44] and a third-place finish. From there, I went to England with everybody else to meet the rest of the team.’ Campbell noted that the boycott had already been announced by the time of the Trials, but there was still hope that the Russian government would withdraw troops from Afghanistan at the eleventh hour. But when neither the Russian government nor the American government would budge, and it became clear that the American Olympic team would definitely not be going to Moscow, “things changed. I was naïve like everyone else,’ Campbell said, “thinking that sports and politics don’t mix. But you realize that when you put the uniform on, they are intertwined. When I was asked what I felt prior to the Games, I said, ‘If [the boycott] is gonna save one life, let’s do it,’ ’cause I’m thinkin’ it’s not gonna be me who’s affected, but then I made third! That marked the spiritual and political awakening of Tonie Campbell. When I realized my dreams and career were being compromised by my government, it started hitting me hard. That’s when I became more vocal. The Olympics were originally founded in the spirit of laying down your arms for the glory of competition.’ Determined to compete and to see their dreams through to the end, many Olympic qualifiers formed an anti-boycott movement, for lack of a better term, with the plans of defying the federal government’s edict. “The bottom line is,’ Campbell said, “the underground movement of athletes trying to get to the Olympics was ready to go. But the government found out about it, and the CIA said we would not be allowed back into the U.S. if we went. We’d be expatriates. We were then ordered to come to the White House to participate in ‘freedom celebrations.’ Meet the press, a barbeque, then there was a little track meet. A lot of athletes never made another Olympic team, and they’re very bitter about it. I was fortunate enough to make two more teams. But even ’84 was only a half-Olympics because the Eastern Bloc countries weren’t there. The ’88 Games were the only complete Olympics, the only true Olympics that I competed in.’ By the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around, the hurdling landscape had changed significantly. Nehemiah was no longer running track at all, but was now playing professional football with the San Francisco 49ers; in addition, Roger Kingdom, who had won a surprising victory in the NCAA’s over Willie Gault in 1983, and had defeated Campbell at the Pan-Am games that same year, had emerged as a major force to be reckoned with in the 110′s. Gault, meanwhile, had also turned to professional football after having been drafted by the Chicago Bears. At the Olympic Trials, Campbell ran very consistently through all four rounds, starting with a 13.33 in the first round, a 13.36 in the quarter-finals, 13.31 in the semi-finals, and 13.34 in the finals, which was good for second place behind Foster’s 13.21. In the years since Nehemiah’s retirement in 1981, Foster had established himself as a dominant force in the high hurdles, punctuated by his new Olympic Trials record of 13.19, which he ran in the first round. At the Olympic Games in Los Angeles a month and a half later, Campbell finished a disappointing fifth in 13.55 while Kingdom upset Foster, 13.20 to 13.23. Campbell went on to race very well on the European circuit for the rest of the summer, running under 13.30 three times and winning eleven races in a row at one point, earning himself the ranking of third-best in the world by Track and Field News, which was the highest world ranking he had ever received up to that point in his career.

In explaining his disappointing Olympic performance, Campbell provided the following explanation: “In ’84, I was supposed to win at least a bronze. Ironically, I got sick the week of the meet; I was out there running with fevers and infections in my body. The problem was, I had six wisdom teeth instead of four. Instead of pulling them, the doctors treated me with antibiotics even though it would thin my blood. They thought it wouldn’t affect my performance. But it did ‘ it slowed my reaction time, my recovery time. I ran three crappy 13.5′s when I was capable of running 13.2′s.’ After the 1984 campaign, Campbell thought that he had had his fill of running track. “I had planned on retiring,’ he said. “I was gonna get married, start my career in Marine Biology, and live happily ever after. But it didn’t happen that way, which just goes to show that God knows best. So I tried [to make the Olympic medal stand] one more time. I made the ’88 team, and that was a tough team to make.’ By 1988, Nehemiah had returned to the track, but the added weight he had put on during his football career, as well as the various injuries he had accumulated during that time period, made him less of a factor than he had been when he was the super-hurdler of the late ’70′s and early ’80′s. Greg Foster was a two-time world champion by this time, and Roger Kingdom, the defending Olympic gold medallist, was still at the top of his game. Also, Arthur Blake, the new kid on the block, looked ready to make a big move as well. Other notables included Stewart, who had finished fourth, behind Campbell, in the 1984 Olympic Trials, and Andre Philips, a UCLA grad more commonly known as a 400-meter hurdle specialist.

Just like in 1984, Campbell had another series of excellent races in the ’88 Trials, winning all three of his qualifying heats in 13.32, 13.35, and 13.34, respectively. In the finals, he ran a wind-aided 13.25, good for second place behind Roger Kingdom’s 13.21, and another trip to the Olympic Games, which would be held in Seoul, Korea. Nehemiah had made it to the finals, but did not finish the race. Foster, who was racing with a broken arm, and was only racing at all because of the magnitude of the meet, bowed out in the semi-finals. That left young Arthur Blake to garner the third spot on the team, as he finished a mere .03 behind Campbell in 13.28. As for the Olympic Games, which took place in late September of ’88, making for a very long season, Campbell says that the races were “tough mentally, but easy physically. I was twenty-eight at the time. I’d been there before, so I could handle the rounds, I knew how to rest between the rounds, get massages. I was very business-like.’ At the Olympic Games, Campbell won his first two rounds in 13.45 and 13.47, respectively, and he finished second in his semi-final heat, again in 13.47. In the finals, he had a horrible start because Blake had seemed to false-start, causing Tonie to instinctively pause. As Tonie put it, Blake “had a hellified false start. I thought they would call it back. I was three or four meters back.’ Still, Campbell was able to rally and finish third in 13.38, behind Roger Kingdom’s new Olympic record of 12.98 and Colin Jackson’s 13.28, which earned the Welshman a silver medal. Campbell remains proud of the fact that, after his slow start, he “went from dead last to third place. Blake’s reaction time [to the starting gun] wasn’t even listed. And my touchdown times were actually faster than Roger’s. With a good start, I would’ve been under thirteen. But that’s the way it goes. I joke with Colin whenever I see him, I say ‘You know you got my silver medal, right?’ He just laughs.’ Campbell said that winning his first Olympic medal, at the age of 28, eight years after having made his first Olympic team, was “everything I ever imagined it would be. You see it so many times in your mind before it actually happens, that once it does happen, it’s surreal. It doesn’t really matter what color that medal is as long as you have one of ‘em.’ Ironically, though, the Olympic Bronze medal is not the one that Campbell treasures the most. “I’m really honored to have an Olympic medal,’ he said, “but it’s not my favorite. The World Cup medal from ’85 is my favorite.’ Campbell ran a wind-aided 13.35 at the 1985 World Cup, and didn’t beat any big-name hurdlers in the meet, but the race stands out “because it symbolizes so much. I blew my knee out six months prior, and the doctors told me I’d never run again. So that medal symbolizes my determination, my can-do spirit, and faith. The World Cup medal was a faith-based medal. Just the fact that I was running again when the doctors were telling me otherwise, that says a lot. Plus the fact, it was special to be the only person representing the U.S.’ Campbell didn’t officially retire from high-stakes hurdling until 1992. “In my last three or four years, after the ’88 Olympics’ he explained, “my knees started giving out. The writing was on the wall. In order to get through training, I had to dope up on painkillers just to get through. I just couldn’t tolerate it anymore. Those last few years, I was hoping for a miracle, hoping to capture a moment of glory. I promised myself I would go out the same way I came in. In ’80 I came up unexpectedly. In ’92 I tried to make a fourth Olympic team, but I looked around in the semis, I was in the top four, hit a hurdle, fell back to fifth. I called a press conference after the race, said that’s all she wrote. I never regretted it. I had an amazing career, full of blessings, good friends, so it was time for somebody else to enjoy that.’

Campbell hurdles in an indoor meet late in his 

Campbell hurdles in an indoor meet late in his career.

When asked how he felt his height ‘ 6’3′ ‘ helped or hurt him throughout his career, Campbell answered by saying, “In the hurdles, there is a range of height that you need to be in. I always thought that Foster at 6’4′ was too tall, and I was just outside the perfect height. When we’re at full speed, we can’t open up our stride and get the full benefit of our speed. Allen Johnson and Colin Jackson are allowed to have perfect sprint strides in between the hurdles.’ One question that has no definite answer in regards to Campbell’s career is where he stands among the all-time high hurdling greats. He doesn’t have the obvious achievements (world record, Olympic or World Championship gold medals) that would move him toward the top of the list, but his accomplishments are many, and they are noteworthy. He is the only high hurdler in history to be ranked among the top ten in the world by Track and Field News eleven years in a row (1980-1990), with his highest ranking being second in 1987. He also qualified for three Olympic teams, finished his career with a personal best of 13.17, won the World Indoor Championships in the 60 meter hurdles in 1987, and ran under 13.30 twenty-five times. As he points out, “I was a World Cup champion, Grand Prix champion, World University Games champion,’ but his feats were largely overshadowed by the feats of his American contemporaries ‘ namely, Foster, Nehemiah, and Kingdom, all of whom have been inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame, while Campbell has not.

When discussing the various rivalries he had throughout his career, Campbell didn’t hesitate to say that “Greg was my biggest rival. He was the most consistent rival I had. Most of my career, I had a problem with Greg. I employed a sports psychologist and we found out there were a lot of hidden issues I had with Greg, the biggest one being that I felt he was the greatest hurdler in my time. Rod [Milburn] and Guy Drut [of France] were retired, so Greg just took it over. When I worked out my demons, I started beating him some.’ Continuing along this line of thought, Campbell stated that “whenever I hooked up with Greg, I knew we’d be in a fight. I knew his secret. I had to be right there [with him] at the fifth hurdle. If I was right there, he’d press. He’d stop, fall, or start hitting hurdles. He knew that if he just stopped, it wouldn’t be counted against him ranking-wise. For you, it wouldn’t count as a head-to-head victory, because it’s like he wasn’t in the race. People used to complain about that because, I mean, come on, man, you wanna get the head-to-head nod.’ In closing his thoughts about Foster, Campbell said that “the one thing I admire about Greg is how, early in his career, he was all speed and power, but as he got older and wiser, his technique got better and better. When he won all those World Championships, that’s the Greg Foster who had speed, power, and technique all together. He was closer to what Renaldo was. The pre-NFL Renaldo.’ As for Nehemiah, Campbell said that “when Renaldo came up out of high school, no one believed his times were real. But Renaldo was for real. Suddenly Foster wasn’t number one, and he couldn’t deal with Renaldo just like I couldn’t deal with Greg. But I never had a rivalry with Renaldo because I wasn’t in his class. Then when he came back from the NFL, he was no longer in my class.’ To explain further, Campbell noted that the younger Renaldo “was smooth all the way through. When he came back he was so wild; his arms were all over the place, his legs were all over the lane. He just wasn’t the same guy.’ As for Kingdom, Campbell said that “Roger and me went back and forth all the time. He was so erratic. He was hurt a lot, but he was so powerful. Sometimes he’d fall, other times he’d blow you away.’ Campbell also gives Kingdom credit for being one of the best hurdlers he ever ran against when it came to the space between the hurdles. “With Kingdom, you had to be ahead of him, because he’d walk you down.’ Ironically, Campbell had the fortune ‘ or misfortune, depending on how you look at it ‘ of being in Nehemiah’s world record 12.93 race in Zurich, Switzerland in 1981, and of also being in Kingdom’s world record 12.92 race in 1989 on the same track. Of the two races, he feels that “Renaldo’s was more impressive. In that race, I knew I was rollin’. I was flyin’. Then I look up and dang, Renaldo and Greg were rollin’. With Kingdom’s, I don’t remember much about it. I just remember he was running faster than I’d ever seen anyone run. But I was too busy dealing with a couple other [competitors] in that race to notice Roger too much.’ Other rivals that Campbell mentioned were Mark McKoy of Canada and the supremely talented Jack Pierce. About McKoy, Campbell said, “He was a monster out of the blocks, but you knew he’d come back to you.’ McKoy reached his peak after Campbell had already fallen from elite status, as he won the Olympic gold medal in 1992 in 13.12, but in the ’80′s, Campbell “never worried about McKoy. Go ahead and let him get out, he’ll hit the fourth hurdle or the fifth hurdle and come right back to you.’ As for Pierce, “Jack was just a phenom waiting to happen. His problem was he was a party animal, and it took him a while to start believing in himself and training like he was capable of training. He could’ve been an amazing athlete, but he never knew how to train, until one year he decided to get serious. That’s when things clicked, and he became very consistent.’ The year Campbell is referring to is 1991, when Pierce finished second to Foster in the World Championships in a photo finish, as they both crossed the line in 13.06. Pierce went on to earn a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics and again in the 1993 World Championships. In the 1996 Olympic Trials, he ran an unearthly 12.94 in the semi-finals, only to hit the first hurdle in the final round and withdraw from the race.

Tony Dees, Cletus Clark, and Sam Turner are other hurdlers whose names came up as Campbell reflected back on his career, but, to summarize, “from ’80 through ’91, the top three were Greg, me, and Renaldo, or Greg, me, and Kingdom.’ In his post-competitive career, Campbell has proven quite capable of finding productive means to occupy his time. In the ’90′s he coached several athletes, including Tony Li of China and 1996 Olympic silver medallist Mark Crear, whom he describes as “one of the most focused athlete I’ve ever dealt with.’ He has also written a children’s book entitled The Highest Stand, which is about a hurdler and has some obvious autobiographical elements in it. The book serves as a good example of Campbell’s strong belief that adults need to act as positive role models for children, and to provide them with encouraging stories that show the power of believing in oneself.

When asked why he decided to write the book, he explained that “when I retired from track, living in Los Angeles, I wanted to get into Hollywood, just like everybody else. I had done a couple commercials, but I never liked being in front of the camera. My idea was to write, so I took some screenwriting classes, and found it to be the closest thing that I can get to the feeling of running. The exhilaration, the rhythm. So I started writing screenplays, and came close to winning a couple big screenwriting contests, but the problem I found with screenplays is that they’re so visual, and you only write the blueprint of the movie. You don’t have any control beyond that. Then someone asked me if I’d ever thought of turning a screenplay into a book. I thought it’d be too time-consuming. Ten years later, the idea came up again. A publishing company in San Diego was working on a series of young children’s sports stories, and asked me if I’d be interested. I said, ‘I can do this,’ and banged out two chapters in a night. I sent it to them, and got a contract the next day. It has sold over 40,000 copies across the country. My second book, Just Run, sold last month, and will be coming out in the summer of 2006.’ In addition to working on his writing career, Campbell continues to coach, at both the collegiate level and the elite level. He is in his fourth year as head coach at Southwestern Junior College in Chula Vista, CA, and he is also the managing director and head coach of the USA Track & Field Olympic High Performance Training Center, which is also located in Chula Vista, only three miles from Southwestern College. Campbell describes the performance center as a place for Olympians and other highly-skilled athletes to get ready for Olympic events. “It’s the only center of its kind in the world,” he said pointing out that its facilities include a nine-lane track with a 12-lane straight-away, ten long-jump pits, ten throwing circles, three javelin areas, and six shot-put areas. Athletes get free room and board, access to a state-of-the-art weight room, and various types of scientific testing. In addition, all training sessions can be filmed.

Campbell, who is in his second year as managing director, said that the performance center is funded by the United States Olympic Committee, and that USA Track & Field chooses the athletes from an applicant pool, and that he and his staff (which includes former jumper/hurdler Al Joyner) take care of everything at the facility itself. “If the athletes meet the Olympic A standard in their event, they get to come for a total of ninety days in the calendar. That’s a good deal for them, because everything’s paid for, and it’s great training. A lot of athletes on the east coast take advantage of it.’ Campbell, who seems quite committed to the idea of creating opportunities for those who might otherwise be left out in the cold, says that he and his staff “are trying to change the world.’ Fortunately, his bosses at Southwestern and at USATF are very supportive of him, and have no problem with him working both jobs. “I have great administrators supporting me,’ he said. “They have confidence in my ability to deliver. I have a great staff at both places. My athletic director doesn’t mind me doing both, and my bosses at USATF are of the mindset that as long as I get the job done, they don’t have a problem with what I do. But [going back and forth] does take a lot of time. Plus, with balancing family life (Campbell has a wife and four kids, ranging in age from eight to eighteen), it gets difficult at times. It’s a lot easier in the fall. When the season comes up, I have to make a lot of decisions ‘ do I go with my elite athletes or the college kids? But the college meets are usually on Fridays, so it works out.’ In terms of his coaching style, Campbell uses Ken Matsuda ” his hurdle coach at USC and beyond” as his role model. “Coach Matsuda used to say, ‘I’m not the best hurdle coach, but I’ll learn for you, and I’ll become the best hurdle coach.’ I tell my athletes the same thing. Even though I ran the hurdles and did well, that doesn’t mean I know everything. That’s what I love about our event, it’s constantly evolving, constantly changing. Renaldo and I talk about that all the time.” In regards to Matsuda, a smallish man who never hurdled himself, Campbell says his relative inexperience in coaching hurdlers never played into their relationship. “Ken Matsuda,” he said, “is a mentor, a coach, a surrogate father to me. He believes in me. His attitude was, ‘I may not be the best, but I’m gonna try to be the best.’ That’s become my attitude in my coaching as well.”

Being a coach of collegiate and elite athletes, Campbell obviously maintains a close connection with the sport that he stumbled into as a tenth-grader, and with the event that he was quite literally pushed into that same year. “The most flattering thing for me,” he said, “is that hurdlers, when they meet me, always go back and say “I remember watching you, I copied your technique.” Or their coaches will say it. For example, the Chinese hurdler [Liu Xiang]” everybody was talking about how smooth this kid was. Finally I saw him on film, and his technique looked so familiar. Then in New York, at the Reebok meet, I found that Tony Li was working with him, and Li is someone I had worked with! It’s funny how it all connects. I retired without getting my elusive Olympic gold medal, but you never know, you can get it in other ways. It’s kind of an honor to see that happen.” Campbell added that “I wanted to give a hundred percent every time out for the sake of the fans out there. It annoys me to see athletes jogging through the finish line in the early rounds. It cheats the event, it cheats the moment. The fans rely on you to give your best; you’re entrusted to give your best. That’s why, every race, every round, I gave it a hundred percent.”

Campbell racing in a body suit and hood in the '88 Olympics.

Campbell racing in a body suit and hood in the ’88 Olympics.

One question I couldn’t help but ask Campbell had to do with the hoods the 110 meter hurdlers wore on their heads in the 1988 Olympic Games. Little did I know that Campbell was the visionary behind the idea. “People laugh now, but I defend those all the time,” he said. “In ’84 we had the first year of body suits. I had a clothing company that partnered with a bicycle clothing company. I asked, “What if we were to wear body suits?”‘ We found out that, yes, we could. In ’84, I got permission to produce five uniforms. The next logical step in ’88 was to take it one step further, so I suggested to them let’s go all out with the hood and everything.” The hoods were worn by Campbell and Kingdom, although Kingdom only wore his in the semis and the finals, but not in the early rounds. “We were stylin’ and profilin’,” Campbell joked, “but it’s also true that you’re always looking for an edge” a hundredth there, a tenth there. I figured if I’m stream-lined from top to bottom, that could be the difference. That’s the legal way of doing it, because I definitely didn’t do it any other way.’ Campbell added that Coach Matsuda “to this day still blames the hood on why I didn’t hear the gun go off. I’m like, it was a false start. But it’s funny, I’m all stream-lined with the hood on and everything, then I got these big old goggles on, lookin’ like The Fly.”

All joking aside, the greatest lesson to be learned from the career and life of Tonie Campbell is that “the first thing a hurdler learns is how to fall.” This quote is one that defines Tonie Campbell the hurdler, Tonie Campbell the husband and father, Tonie Campbell the coach, and Tonie Campbell the human being. It’s a quote that takes away the false hope that obstacles can be avoided, and let’s us know that obstacles must be faced head on. Hurdlers learn early on in their careers that they cannot run around hurdles, cannot run under hurdles, cannot run through hurdles, but must run over them, using a combination of speed, power, and technique.

“Once you get down to business,’ Campbell said, “you better learn how to fall, because every hurdler is gonna fall. I’ve had concussions, all kinds of injuries. Some hurdlers fall so hard that they never want to enjoy the thrill of hurdling again. If you’re not ready to fall, you’re not ready to hurdle.”

Campbell has cleared enough hurdles that he oughtta know, and the rest of us oughtta listen.